GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Chris Kreider arrived with a bang three years ago and then started looking like he might be a bust. Now his bang might be enough to help the New York Rangers bust the Washington Capitals right out of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kreider heads into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) fresh off a two-goal performance in New York's 4-3 win in Game 6 on Sunday. He is the Rangers' hottest forward with four goals in the best-of-7 series, all in New York's three wins.
Kreider leads the Rangers with 16 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since making his NHL debut in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"He always seems to play his best in the big games," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "He's just moving his feet. He's so fast, so big, so he's a hard guy to defend when he's hitting guys and getting in front of the net. He's definitely a force to be reckoned with out there."
Kreider has tormented the Capitals with his speed, size (6-foot-3, 226 pounds) and strength. At times he has appeared impossible to defend because of how fast he is going and how hard he is to knock off the puck, whether he's near the boards or in the middle of the ice.
"The kind of impact I need to have on a game it's simple, north-south, legs first, try to get my feet moving, try to take the body," Kreider said. "It's a power forward type of game, I guess."
His first goal in Game 6, 40 seconds into the first period, was basically a video highlight for the type of player Kreider has become.
He bolted out of the defensive zone and around Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner as soon as right wing Jesper Fast got the puck along the half-wall. Fast chipped the puck up the wall and Kreider picked it up at the red line. He instantly cut to the middle and gained position on Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Kreider kept the puck in front of him with one hand on his stick as he used his strength and size to ward off Niskanen to keep him on his back. He then put two hands on his stick and flipped a backhand past goalie Braden Holtby's blocker.
"He's a power forward that's probably one of the fastest players in the League with size and strength," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, "so when he plays like that he's tough to handle for anybody."
Kreider was tough to handle when he broke into the NHL three years ago, but it wasn't sustainable. He came straight from winning the NCAA Frozen Four with Boston College into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in Game 6. He had five goals, including two game-winners, and seven points in 18 playoff games in 2012; this was all before he appeared in an NHL regular-season game.
Kreider was raw, and even though he provided the Rangers the shot in the arm they needed to reach the conference final in 2012, he wasn't fully ready for full time NHL work until about three weeks into last season.
Kreider started the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Rangers, but he was up and down and played in 23 of the 48 games because he also spent time in the American Hockey League. Vigneault determined he wasn't good enough to make the Rangers out of training camp last season, so he started in the AHL and didn't make his NHL season debut until Oct. 24.
He has been a full-time NHL player since and had 21 goals and 46 points in 80 games this season.
"There's been a real strong improvement on his game from last year to this year," Vigneault said. "With his potential, it's normal. He's become a very important piece of our team with a big role. Like any team that expects to win at this time of the year, you need your players to play up to their level. Chris is doing that for us now."
Kreider doesn't think the level he's at now is good enough, at least not for what he believes he's capable of doing in the NHL. He admits he's having the kind of impact now, at 24 years old, that he thought he would have at this stage of his career, but thinks he hasn't come close to his ceiling.
"Hopefully it's a poor man's Chris Kreider [that you're seeing now]," Kreider said.
Kreider said he wants to improve his ability to read shots on the defensive end so he can better fill the lanes to block them. He also wants to get better with his wall play, which he said has been dynamite at times but isn't consistent enough.
"Wall play is so 'What have you done for me lately,'" Kreider said. "You need to be lights out on the wall in order to be a good player. It's about reading plays, taking advantage of my teammates and what they do well. That's what makes a good player.
"If you look at Derek [Stepan], he really plays to his linemates' and teammates' strengths. That's something I have to continue to work on and do. It's little stuff for consistency."
In some ways that's just Kreider being hard on himself through his analytical approach. He is a measured self-evaluator in that he is always picking apart his game to find ways to be better and always looking for reasons why things happen.
"You have to be honest with yourself," Kreider said. "That's how you improve."
There might be improvements down the road, enough to make Kreider into a 30-goal scorer and an All-Star power forward, but what he's doing now is just fine for the Rangers. They need everything he's got, and he's been delivering it with authority.
"He's kind of a freak of nature, really," Girardi said. "He's just so big and strong and fast. When he puts his mind to it and he wants it that bad he's going to make a play like he made on that [first] goal [in Game 6]. He's giving us a chance to win every night when he's playing like that."